- The Original Occupy Wall Street:Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener"
Last semester my College Composition 2 class at Palm Beach State College in Florida engaged in a provocative discussion. We considered an increasingly complex world in which many are disenfranchised. We discussed a developing American experience in which those at the top feel deeply entitled and fail to recognize their lack of sufficient action and responsibility on behalf of those who are less privileged. The focus on alienating, dehumanizing circumstances created by market forces seemed relevant to the group, and the students participated thoughtfully. Were we looking at current events and the Occupy Wall Street movement? Eventually, yes, but we got there through consideration of Herman Melville's 1853 short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener : A Story of Wall Street."
The commonalities between Bartleby, Melville's elusive character, and the Occupy protesters gave students entre to analyze the motives, methods, and symbolic value of those who take a stand against today's material and psychological circumstances. The story is set in the mid-1800s in New York City, an increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and dehumanizing environment, and the title character says no to all that is around him through the repeated phrase that becomes his mantra: "I would prefer not to." The self-congratulatory narrator/lawyer initially tries to help his employee Bartleby. But he eventually moves his business out of the offices in response to the loner employee who will neither participate in the work nor vacate the premises. Bartleby has essentially squatted in—occupied—these Wall Street offices. As a result of his very passive resistance, Bartleby is taken to prison, where he dies.
Melville's story challenges the reader to reconsider humans' responsibilities to our fellow humans. Are there limits on what is required of us in the face of those who cannot or will not behave conventionally? The work ultimately pushes readers to reject the idea that we have done enough if we have done the expected, routine amount. And it suggests that the business establishment has responsibilities it does not acknowledge or live up to.
Bartleby can be been read in a number of complementary ways: the character can be seen as a representation of the mentally ill, of the Romantic individual, of the writer. As this scrivener suggests the role of the artist in a business milieu, central to an understanding of the story is that the self-satisfied businessman cannot fathom someone so different, someone so outside of his experience. To him, Bartleby, this Other, is a blank wall. What does Bartleby want? There is no possibility of communication, but only barriers to understanding, only walls on Wall Street in this symbolic story. Critics of today's Occupy activists react the same way as the narrator of Melville's short story does: these modern critics see the protestors as simply nay sayers, slackers without an agenda, making a mess, in the way. Certainly, the Occupy movement wants economic parity, but it also suggests that the business world that must fully employ [End Page 54] us at fair wages in reasonable proportion to their own must also acknowledge our connections to each other, our expressiveness, indeed our individuality.
This story of a copyist for a law office who decides that he "would prefer not to" complete mind numbing, repetitive labor also allows students to see the historical roots of contemporary material and emotional alienation and disenfranchisement, and to begin to understand that literature is a rich arena for commenting on hierarchies of power and privilege.
Regina Dilgen, Ph.D., is a Professor at Palm Beach State College where she also serves as Chair of the Lake Worth Campus English Department.